“We’ll do what we’ve got to do to win games. That’s our number one objective when we go on the field.”
Florida Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease
Through all the X’s and the O’s, the recruiting battles and depth charts, the motivational slogans and the pep talks, the bottom line for a college football team is simply doing what it needs to do to in order to win games.
For Florida fans who watched a moribund passing game last season and who have high expectations for a reversal of offensive fortunes this season for the passing game, this statement may bode ill. The statement was in response to a question from a reporter about returning to a semblance of offensive balance this season after last season’s 65-35% run/pass ratio. Pease wasn’t very comforting when he eschewed a 50/50 ratio and instead spoke of a 60/40 ratio which isn’t much different from last season. Of course, if the Gators can hit more downfield plays, convert more third downs, and take less sacks on the 40% passing then Gator fans will be quite happy. Pease’s statement, however, sounds eerily like last season as the staff repeatedly towed the party line about not being concerned with looking pretty, just doing what it takes to win the game.
The Gators come into this season with a ton of question marks, but the biggest obviously will be how much different this season’s offense will be compared to last year’s. There are many reasons to be optimistic, and there are many other reasons to be skeptical. We’ll start with the skeptics.
First, and foremost, it’s the same staff, same scheme, and same philosophy.
As long as Will Muschamp is the head coach, don’t expect to see the Fun & Gun in Gainesville. Muschamp has made it very clear from day one that his philosophy is to pound the rock. After you pound the rock, you pound the rock. Then you pound the rock some more. When you get tired of pounding the rock, you pound the rock some more. It’s not that Will is averse to the forward pass, it’s just that he’s averse to the forward pass. But seriously folks. Muschamp likes to control the line of scrimmage, protect the football, control the clock, and control the tempo of the game. All of the above signal a run/pass ratio heavy on the run and maybe at best picking your spots to throw. It’s not to say they won’t try to open it up a little more this season, it’s just that until somebody, anybody steps up in an actual game situation to make a play downfield, expect Muschamp to keep it close to the vest. There are reasons to think there might be some playmakers in Gainesville based on camp, but again, until somebody steps up in an actual game and does it, there’s no logical reason to believe it will happen and don’t expect Muschamp to do anything different.
Secondly, it’s the same quarterback running the same show.
I know, I know he’s a year older, wiser, and more mature. However, like the wide receiver position, until we actually see him perform accurately in a game, until we actually see him go through his progressions in an actual game, until we see him make plays downfield in an actual game, do we really logically have a reason to believe? Sure the staff says he looks good. They always say that. They have to say that. Have you ever seen a coach not named Spurrier say that his quarterback sucks? Sure he looked good in spring and preseason camp and scrimmages, but we’ve all seen this act before haven’t we? Guys light it up in practice and scrimmages and then stink it up when the stands are 90,000 strong right? Driskel may very well live up to the hype, live up to his potential as the top rated quarterback coming out of high school, but until he shows that promise in an actual game, fans should remain skeptical. Even if only for their own mental health.
Third, it’s the same supporting cast at receiver.
I know all about the great wide receiver recruiting class. I wrote all about them on signing day. However, if you look at the depth chart, it’s the same guys as last year short of Andre Debose who is out for the season, but has been nothing but a disappointment at the position throughout his career. The three freshman listed on the depth chart Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Floyd, and Chris Thompson simply replaced the backups, last year’s true freshman Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman who would have had to make a major step up just to consider their performance mediocre. Heck, a couple of German Sheperds could take their place on the depth chart and no one would miss them. So the same lineup is back and is a year older but unless they went out and found themselves some instant talent, there is no logical reason to believe they will be very much improved over last season. Of course, those true freshman could very well step up and show out, but the odds of freshman making a big impact at that position are very low.
Finally, Jeff Driskel has no legitimate back up in case of injury.
Now this might sound odd because it is making a big supposition, but considering the amount that Driskel runs, designed or otherwise, the odds of him missing time due to injury remains high. Driskel was quite lucky last season to only miss one game (an easy opponent) and part of another considering how many hits he took. The Gators can only hope he could be so lucky this season. Remember, the first time an opponent faces you, they don’t know what to expect. The next time you can well expect they’ve game planned for you and will be actively trying to get big hits on you and take you out. If that happens, the Gators have no adequate backup to take his place. Sure Tyler Murphy’s been here forever, and got some reps with the first team during fall camp but to expect him to be able to capably lead the Gators to victory against the likes of Georgia, South Carolina, LSU, or FSU is lunacy. If Driskel goes down, the Gators are dead in the water and that’s the bottom line.
So now that we’ve gotten the pessimist’s viewpoint out of the way let’s take a look at some reasons to be optimistic that the Gator offense will be much improved this season, particularly in the passing game.
First, it’s year two for Pease.
This fact cannot be overlooked and is one that I’ve yet to hear discussed. As a coordinator, much like a player the first season is kind of a feeling out period and there’s a learning curve. Installing the offense and learning how your personnel fit into that scheme is a work in progress that first season. All the X’s and O’s in the world mean nothing if your personnel cannot run it effectively or haven’t learned it inside and out. Much like the Gator defense struggled in year one of Dan Quinn’s defense and then soared in it in his second season, it’s not unrealistic to expect the Gators to make huge stride’s in year two of Brent Pease’s offense.
“I think, one, we’re more experienced,” coach Pease said. “And we can take an approach to be a little more aggressive because of knowing the plays and what’s involved and how we attack defenses compared to last year.”
It’s also important to consider that Pease had the whole offseason to watch film and see how SEC defenses defended him as well as see how his players handled the offense. This should have allowed him to tweak the offense and his personnel and scheme to better take advantage of defenses this season. It remains to be seen how effective this will be but there is reason to be optimistic.
An offense, particularly in the passing game, can only go as far as it’s field general takes it. Throughout his youth football career and up until last season, Jeff Driskel was able to simply rely on his athletic ability. Never before was he truly counted on to read defenses, go through progressions, and make accurate throws. While his talent, ability, and potential have never been in question, his knowledge and understanding of the passing game and field leadership was very limited. That alone explains why Muschamp and Pease limited Driskel’s decision making last season. It’s why they kept his passing options short and sweet while relying more on his legs and the rushing game to mask his deficiencies and protect the football. A whole offseason to reflect, watch video, critique every situation he faced, and further learn the offense has to have made an impact. Driskel’s a smart kid who was simply green. His maturity level, vocal leadership, and confidence have grown by leaps and bounds and it is apparent watching his on-field demeanor. It has rubbed off on his teammates as well.
” (Driskel is) much more vocal,” according to defensive lineman Dominique Easley. “I believe he has much more confidence in himself. He’s more vocal to the team, he understands what his role is.”
Confidence, alone, may be the biggest aspect of his growth. Last season, while confident as a runner, he appeared to be somewhat timid in the passing game and as a leader. Being in a quarterback competition, being thrust into the starting position, and having some level of distrust or malcontent among his teammates left him nervous, looking over his shoulder. That’s definitely not a situation you like from the quarterback position. With backup Brisset leaving in the offseason and Driskel returning as the entrenched starter, his confidence level has grown by leaps and bounds.
“It’s easier to be more vocal when you’re the set quarterback,” Driskel said during SEC media days. “When there’s a competition, you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I’m a lot more confident because I’ve played more and gotten a lot more snaps and played one year as the starting quarterback. I’d say the guys respect me a lot more this year. I’ve opened my mouth a lot more and just being around the guys, it just comes with it. You don’t flip a switch; it grows.”
Third, they finally have depth and experience on the offensive line.
This may just be the biggest reason to have confidence that the Gator offense should be improved this season. When Muschamp was hired at Florida he made a point in his opening press conference to mention that the SEC is a line of scrimmage league. What he meant by that is every team has good lineman on both sides of the ball. Usually the team that wins the line of scrimmage wins games regardless of what they have at skill positions. A year ago, the Gators were good on the offensive line but terribly inconsistent. While they did pave the way for the first Gator 1,000 yard rusher since 2004, too often teams were able to stymie the rushing game and they gave up far too many sacks. Some of that had to do with learning their third new offense in three years, thinking rather than reacting. The speed of the game in the SEC, especially with the talent the SEC has on the defensive line means you can’t be successful as a lineman if you’re having to think about what you’re doing, where you’re supposed to be, who you’re supposed to block. This was a major issue last season for the Gator offensive line. Another year in the system alone should remedy that, at least for the returning players such as Halapio, Harrison, and Humphries.
A bigger problem last season was the lack of depth. The top five guys played well for the most part, but behind them there was a huge dropoff in play. The line had a number of injuries that plagued it throughout the season meaning there were lineup changes week to week and it showed in the middle of the season when the Gators hit the meat of their schedule without their best five guys. This season there was an infusion of experienced talent that gave the Gators instant depth and ability. Transfers Tyler Moore (Nebraska) and Max Garcia (Maryland) both started as freshman at their respective original schools. Not only did they play but they played at a high level. Garcia was at Florida last season running the scout team so he was able to absorb the offense for a season. Moore is a versatile, talented player that earned the starting job at right tackle over last season’s starter Chaz Green, who unfortunately just suffered a season ending injury. Another newcomer that has been impressive is junior college transfer Trenton Brown who at 6’8 365 lbs. is a mammoth of a man, likely the largest player in Gator history, and with his long arms and unique athleticism should make an impact on the Gator offensive line this season.
“We still feel pretty good about our situation,” coach Muschamp said about the offensive line. “You know when Jon [Halapio] comes back, it gives you nine guys you feel comfortable about as far as playing experience. Max [Garcia] and Tyler [Moore] are new to us, but both of them have played at a high level. So both guys are guys that we have a large comfort level with. D.J. Humphries has played a lot for us and played extremely well. Jon Harrison, you know, I’ll take him over any center in the country, as far as how he plays and how he approaches the game and being the rock for us up front. Kyle Koehne, Trip Thurman, and Ian Silberman are all guys who have played and/or started games, Trip hasn’t, but Ian and Kyle have, and Trenton Brown has been a guy who has come along for us. But that’s why you recruit, you have injuries, especially on the offensive line; it’s a far cry from three years ago, or two years ago, whenever it was, we had about seven offensive lineman on scholarship.”
Fourth, Matt Jones is the prototypical Muschamp back.
Ever since Urban Meyer took over bringing in smaller, speedy, scat back types, the Gators have been plagued with an inability to get the tough yards, to pound the rock up the middle of a defense and impose their will. When Muschamp took over attempting to install a pounding, downhill running game, he was stymied with Demps and Rainey, speedy backs but too small to take the inside pounding this offense requires. Last season, the Gators were able to get close to what they needed in that offense with Mike Gillislee, but was still not quite prototypical. Enter Matt Jones at 6’2″ 226 and now you have the size Muschamp covets at the position. Jones backed up Gillislee last season so he has some game experience and he really started to come on late in the season showing the promise that Gator fans have hoped for since Muschamp took over. He’s a big guy that hits the hole fast and hard, he can take on contact as well as make the quick cuts similar to what Gillislee could do. That taking on contact is really what separates Jones from Gilly. Jones can punish linebackers and defensive backs who step up into the hole while still having the agility to make his cuts and bounce off tacklers. Jones really showed out against FSU in the second half helping Florida move the chains when they needed to close out the game.
Finally, the wide receiver corps is a year older and has some talented depth.
I know what I said earlier, but somehow Gator fans have to believe that the returning receivers who were all extremely young last season and playing in a new offense have to have improved in the offseason. To their credit, the lackluster numbers wasn’t all on them. Driskel was often off target or late with his throws putting them into difficult situations, something you certainly do not want to do with a young receiving corps. Another offseason of learning, growth, and practice on timing issues should help considerably. Driskel having more confidence in himself, able to read through his progressions, and make more accurate throws should help this unit considerably as well. Additionally, having guys like Soloman Patton who was relegated to running the jet sweep last season step up in the offseason and leading wide receiver Quinton Dunbar showing improvement in his game has to give Gator fans some level of hope. Trey Burton has been said to have become a better receiver in the slot, improving his route running, getting separation, and making tough catches. It all adds up to improvement in the receiving game for the returning players at the position. Like Driskel and the offensive line, another year in the system should allow them to react rather than think which means they’ll be able to showcase their athletic ability more this season.
“The receivers are making plays on the ball that they didn’t make last year in practice,” corner back Jaylen Watkins said of the receiving corps’ improvement in the offseason. “Going against Roberson, Purifoy, and me they won some of the battle this year as opposed to last year.”
Additionally, the newcomers Robinson, Floyd, and Thompson give the Gators an added dimension they haven’t had since Muschamp has been here. Namely, size, speed, and natural ability. Robinson is 6’2″ while Floyd is 6’4″ giving them height to go up and grab footballs as well as bigger targets for Driskel to both see and hit with the football. Both guys have shown a natural ability for route running and grabbing the football. Robinson is said to be able to make all the tough catches the Gators couldn’t make last season.
“He’s really developed for a young kid,” according to Pease. “Physically he’s developed. He’s got a lot of talent, he’s got great hands.” Adding, “Does he have the ability to be fun to watch? Absolutely.”
Thompson is a speedster that will be valuable in the slot where he can matchup with linebackers and nickel backs and use his speed to make plays. Of course, these guys are freshman so Gator fans shouldn’t get their hopes up too high about how much success these guys will have this season, but it is encouraging to know that they present opportunities for the Gators to not only make plays but also to force defenses to account for them. If nothing else, they should prevent defenses from loading the box against Driskel and Jones like we saw so much last season. The mixture of experienced veterans and talented youth should add up to improvement in the passing game.
“There’s more people that can be more productive around on the perimeter,” Pease said of the passing game evolution this season. “Especially with the receivers. I think we’ve got to do things to get the ball in their hands, but they’ve got to also do things that they can be productive and make the defenses accountable to them or we’re going to be facing a lot of situations where there’s heavy boxes and there’s going to be hard runs inside.”
The X factor in the receiving corps is two way player Loucheiz Purifoy, the starting corner who will see a package of plays week to week on offense for the Gators. Purifoy is a natural playmaker whether it’s being a lockdown corner or as a gunner on the punt and kickoff coverage teams or as a receiver. He is one of the fastest players on the team and has a knack for playmaking going back to his high school and youth football days.
“I think he’s a kid that loves football,” said coach Pease. “I think he’s very natural being a football player. So to be playing defense and then all of the sudden switch over to do a play on offense and all of the sudden hit a post route. He makes it look so natural sometimes. I think he’s good at it. I think he understands it.”
Pease was somewhat mum about their exact plans for him but did say,
“There will be a package a week involved for him. Touching it, throwing it to him, or possibly running.”
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